ST. LOUIS – Evansville is looking for something very, very special at high noon Friday.
That’s about the time the very young Purple Aces will be facing unbeaten Wichita State in a quarterfinal game of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament at the Scottrade Center.
“I believe a miracle can happen,” Evansville center Egidijus Mockevicius said Thursday night after the Aces’ 69-61 opening-round victory over Drake.
The ninth-seeded Aces – a team that starts three sophomores and two freshmen – remember that Feb. 1 afternoon at Koch Arena. They recall hitting their first eight shots and leading the Shockers by 15 points in the first half.
“That gives us confidence we can beat these guys,” said sophomore guard D.J. Balentine, who lived up to his stature as the league’s top scorer by putting in 30 points against Drake. “But it will take a lot of effort. It will take a whole lot of team effort.”
That’s because he also knows what WSU did in coming back to came back to win, 81-67. About two weeks later in Evansville, the Shockers won 84-68.
Yes, leading big early can give a young team hope, Evansville coach Marty Simmons said.
“But you have to look at both sides of it,” he added. “We get up by 15 in the first 10 minutes, but they outscored us probably by 30 in the last 30. That’s the reality of it.
“There’s a reason they are ranked No. 2 and unbeaten.”
Balentine gave the Shockers fits in that first game, scoring 26 points on 11-of-21 shooting. He scored 17 points in the second game, but WSU’s defense also forced him into missing 12 of 17 shots.
Simmons knows what WSU’s guard threesome of Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton can do.
“Those three guards play as hard as any three guards I’ve ever played or coached against,” Simmons said. “They’re that good. We’re going to have to raise our intensity level.”
Turnovers and soft rebounding hurt the Aces in their losses to the Shockers, he said.
“But there’s not one thing that’s going to make the diffrence against a team as outstanding as Wichita State is,” Simmons said. “But we have to have more energy and our guys believe that they can do it to have a chance.”
Mockevicius, a 6-foot-10 sophomore from Lithuania, had plenty of energy against Drake. In addition to his 19 points, he set a tournament record by blocking eight shots.
“We have to play our game against Wichita State,” he said.
And that would be?
“Be strong,” he said.
And get to the free-throw line. The Aces did that well Thursday night, hitting 25 of 32 from the line. Balentine and Mockevicious combined to make 20 of 25 free throws.
“We need to get some easy shots to beat Wichita State,” Balentine said. “Nothing is easier than free throws.”
Matching WSU’s versatile and tenacious defense is also a factor, said Evansville freshman Blake Simmons.
“If we execute and play tough defense,” he said, “then we’ll have a pretty good chance to be there at the end.”